American female vocal ensemble The Three Degrees was founded in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, about 1963. Although the group has had 16 ladies over the years, it has always remained a trio. The current lineup consists of Valerie Holiday and Freddie Pool, with Tabitha King temporarily standing in for Helen Scott, who is now on “health leave.” Between 1974 and 1985, the group had 13 Top 50 hit songs in the UK, where it was most popular.
Formation and early days
The all-girl vocal group trio The Three Degrees was the brainchild of producer and songwriter Richard Barrett, who used to be one of the vocalists of his own group The Valentines. Barrett also had previously discovered and managed other acts such as the Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Little Anthony and the Imperials, and the Chantels (not to be confused with The Chantelles).
The original lineup of the Philadelphia-based group The Three Degrees consisted of Fayette Pinkney (or Pickney), Shirley Porter and Linda Turner. Barrett had them record their first single “Gee Baby (I’m Sorry),” which was released on Swan Records label and became a minor pop hit in 1965. Turner and Porter left; Helen Scott and Janet Harmon later made up of the newly-revamped group. Scott, however, left in 1966 to get married and raise a family.
Association with Gamble & Huff
Barrett had also begun managing another artist Sheila Ferguson, who also happened to be Scott’s high school friend. With Scott’s departure, Ferguson filled in for the former and began singing backup on all of The Three Degrees’ Swan recordings. In turn, the group sang backup vocals on many of Scott’s own singles. In 1967, Valerie Holiday came in to replace Harmon, who left. For the next three years Barrett subsequently had the group signed to short-term projects with labels Warner Bros., Metro Media and Neptune. Neptune’s owners Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff would later collaborate with Barrett and the group.
In 1970, the Philly soul trio inked another contract this time with Roulette Records. Their first hit on that label was their cover of the Chantel’s “Maybe,” which gave the Three Degrees their first Top 40 pop hit (at #29) and first Top 10 R&B (at #4). In 1971, The Three Degrees also made a cameo appearance on the Oscar-award winning film The French Connection. They also toured alongside star Engelbert Humperdinck.
In 1973, Barrett had a deal with Gamble and Huff’s to sign the Three Degrees to Philadelphia International Records (PIR). It was at this point where the girls were on the way to their commercial peak. The first record on that label, “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia),” was their collaboration with the respected session band MFSB. The record was used as the new theme song for the hit show Soul Train. Because of the growing public demand for “TSOP,” it was eventually released as a single. It topped all pop, R&B and adult contemporary singles charts in 1973.
Biggest hit ever
The Three Degrees achieved this peak on their own in 1974, with the single “When Will I See You Again,” written by Gamble and Huff. It reached #2 on the Hot 100, and #1 on both the R&B and the UK charts, and #4 on the US Billboard R&B chart. It sold over two million copies, and was certified double platinum. It would also be their only major pop hit. Their eponymous second LP, which contained the hit single, climbed to #28 on the Billboard 200.
Personnel shifts, popularity in the UK and present lineup
In 1976, the most successful Three Degrees lineup of Pinkney, Ferguson and Holiday came to an end when Pinkney left the group, and Helen Scott returned to the fold. With Scott, the newly-reformed trio once again released Standing Up For Love on CBS label. Then they signed up to a European record imprint Ariola Records, releasing a number of singles (some of them disco songs) there including “Woman In Love” (#3 UK) and “The Runner” (#10 UK).
The Three Degrees had gained fame in the UK, as evidenced by their compilation album Gold (which became a Top 10 hit there), their Royal Alert Hall TV special gig, and appeared at Buckingham Palace for Prince Charles’ 30th birthday party as well as for his and would-be Princess Diana’s pre-wedding party.
The trio then released a number of UK-only records. In 1986, Ferguson quit, and new member Victoria Wallace came to replace her. That same year Scott became pregnant and had to leave for a while, and she was replaced temporarily by Miquel Brown.
In 1989, the lineup Scott, Holiday and Wallace released Three Degrees…And Holding on Ichiban Records. At the end of that year, Wallace left and her position was filled in by Cynthia Garrison. This lineup of Scott/Holiday/Garrison would form the longest-running Three Degrees roster until 2010 when Freddie Pool came to replace Garrison, (who was suffering a neuromuscular disease) as to fulfill the group’s upcoming touring commitments. This lineup of Scott, Holiday and Pool continues up to this day.
The 90s Onwards
Wallace was replaced by Cynthia Garrison in December 1989, resulting in the lineup that the group has had for the longest. They were requested to collaborate with Thomas Anders on a new recording of “When Will I See You Again” in 1993. (of Modern Talking). He contributed three songs to their most popular album in 15 years, Out of the Past Into the Future, which marked their return to Ariola Records. Two more singles from the album, a re-recording of “Dirty Ol’ Man,” and a brand-new song called “Hurry Hurry,” were also released.
They issued a new best-of album in 1993 called Best & New Hits: When Will I See You Again, which featured 5 cover songs and 5 re-recorded hits. Christmas With The Three Degrees, a holiday CD, was also created in 1998.
The group’s 15th (and last) UK top 60 song, “Last Christmas,” which was released as a remixed dance single and peaked at number 54, was covered by the group for this album.
Garrison, Holiday, and Scott kept on touring. In 2003, they made their first US television appearance in more than 20 years on the PBS program Rhythm, Love, and Soul with Mary Wilson, Lou Rawls, and Aretha Franklin. They also took part in The Pointer Sisters’, Chic’s, The Emotions’, and Evelyn “Champagne King’s” “Best Disco In Town 2004 Tour.” Additionally, in May 2007, they traveled to the UK as part of the “Best Disco In Town” tour.
In 2008, the group released the album Helen, Valerie, Cynthia: The Greatest Hits, which included completely new recordings of the group’s biggest hits and some fan favorites.
The group, together with founder member Fayette Pinkney, received various honors during 2007 and 2008, through BEMA (The Black Entertainment and Music Association) and the City of Philadelphia for their contribution to music over five decades, creating, for the first time, The Four Degrees.
Fayette Pinkney died on June 27, 2009, in Lansdale Hospital, Pennsylvania, after a short illness at the age of 61. Her 1979 solo album, One Degree, was released on CD shortly after her death.
The group’s first studio album in more than ten years, Undercover 2009, was released in 2009. There were eight different cover songs by artists including ABBA, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, and the Bee Gees. They released a new song, “Holding Back,” the following year.
Freddie Pool took Cynthia Garrison’s position in January 2011 when she was diagnosed with Piriformis syndrome.
The Three Degrees’ debut studio album, titled Strategy: Our Tribute to Philadelphia, was published in 2016 on Cherry Red Records.
The Three Degrees’ longest-running lineup was the one with Holiday, Scott, and Garrison. (1989–2010).
Three Degrees Artist Facts
- The Three Degrees were established in Philadelphia in 1963. Richard Barrett, a producer and songwriter, found the group and wrote “Gee Baby (I’m Sorry),” which peaked at #80 on the charts in 1965.
- The Three Degrees had fifteen members when Freddie Pool joined them in 2011. From 1967 through 1976, the trio of Fayette Pinkney, Valerie Holiday, and Sheila Ferguson, with the latter taking the lead vocals, was the most popular.
- The ensemble had an appearance in The French Connection, which won an Oscar in 1971. They appeared in a cameo while performing “Everybody Gets to Go to the Moon” by Jimmy Webb at the Copacabana nightclub in New York.
- The Three Degrees were signed by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International Records in 1973. “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia),” the theme song for the television program Soul Train, was their debut release on the label and a US #1 smash.
- After it was revealed that the Prince of Wales was one of the Three Degrees’ biggest supporters, they were given the nickname Charlie’s Angels. At Prince Charles’ 30th birthday celebration at Buckingham Palace in 1977, they gave a performance of their best-known song, “When Will I See You Again.”
- The Three Degrees were the only Americans present at Charles and Diana’s wedding in 1981, aside from Nancy Reagan.
- The third and last US Top 40 success for The Three Degrees was “When Will I See You Again.” However, they enjoyed greater longevity in the UK, where they amassed a total of 11 Top 40 hits. With “My Simple Heart” in 1979, the American trio’s tenure on the other side of the Atlantic came to an end.
Any music enthusiast anywhere in the world would undoubtedly tap his foot and sing along to some of their best songs as soon as it starts playing since this enduringly excellent three has produced an astounding run of great recordings over the course of their nearly 50-year career!